Saturday, November 21, 2009
Being “in the moment” is a Zen ideal become pop cliché, easier to assimilate (though infinitely harder to put into practice) than our usual human ways of being, or, as Heidegger put the matter, “being-in-the-world.” The philosopher Martin Heidegger identified two of those human ways as “leaping ahead” and “tarrying alongside.” At the risk of egregious oversimplification, I will paraphrase Heidegger’s view by saying that, because human beings have projects and goals, we are always leaping ahead into the future. We are, in fact, “thrown” into it, whether we will or no. To live completely in the moment (does “the moment” even exist?) would mean to live without projects, plans, goals—without imagination!--and while it’s wonderful on occasion to still the fretting, squirrel-caging mind and simply breathe, it’s difficult to imagine that anyone would choose to give up visions of the future, even if that were possible.
Another aspect of being human is that the dead remain with us for as long as we remember them. We tarry alongside them, feel their presence, dream of them, and continue in imagination our relationships with them. Again, while some memories are painful, would we really want to live without memories altogether? With that rhetorical question I am circling around to my destination, which is that while I find Heidegger’s insights on leaping-ahead and tarrying-alongside both constitutive of humanity and very poetic, I think his own insights argue against his claim that each of us tries to hide from the fact of our own ultimate death. It isn’t that we hide from the knowledge of death: it’s just that human knowledge cannot encompass death. These are thoughts I've had before, but they are very much with me these days, especially today, which was the occasion of Claudia Goudschaal's memorial service.
I’m going to make a little digression here, so anyone who wants to skip over it can simply scroll down....
Let me bring in a scary word here: epistemology. Introductory undergraduate classes call it theory of knowledge, so as not to scare off the undergrads, but epistemology textbooks are still among the most boring on earth, and thinking about why this is so can be heartbreaking. What is knowledge? How do we know anything? What kinds of things can we know, and what are the limits of knowledge? These burning questions have been made boring by 20th-century philosophy’s jealousy of science. Oh, let us become technical! Let us have obscure jargon and sleek formulae! Let us quantify and formulate and symbolize! Basically, however, despite renegade movements off on the fringes, most people if asked would assent to the pedestrian proposition that knowledge is “justified true belief.” (1) I believe something. (2) What I believe is true. (3) I have good reasons for believing it true. Bingo! One problem often cited is the case where we believe something true without having sufficient justification. This is generally seen as not really knowing.
But okay, let’s flip the problem of knowledge around in ways that epistemology texts don’t usually do. What about the case where we know something is true—and we have all kinds of evidence and no doubt whatsoever—but we can’t make ourselves believe it? Believing without knowing is a problem philosophy has recognized for years. But what about knowing without believing? ...Sometimes, it’s true, we do refuse belief and defend ourselves against truth we do not wish to acknowledge (echo here of “The Music Man”), but other times it seems more as if the truth refuses to fit into our hearts and minds, no matter how hard we try to accommodate it. That, I believe, is our relationship to death, and all the dead bodies in the world are not evidence sufficient to counter the living spirits that persist in our memories, dreams and reflections.
What about you? Would you have it any other way?